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Updated 2 February 2022
A potentially worrisome variant of COVID-19 was recently discovered in South Africa and has so far been detected in several countries in Africa as well as some European countries. The latest iteration of the novel coronavirus is designated ‘the Omicron variant’ and the World Health Organization (WHO) promptly classified Omicron as a Variant of Concern (VOA).
What about the omicron variant in Pakistan? Has the new strain been detected in Pakistan yet? Here’s everything we know so far about the omicron variant in Pakistan.
B.1.1.529 — What is the omicron variant?
By its very nature, viruses mutate. The B.1.1.529 variant, also known as the omicron variant, is a product of such a process and has recently been classified as a VOA by the WHO.
The first confirmed omicron infection was from a specimen collected in early November 2021 in South Africa amidst a steep rise in infection cases. While it’s not yet clear whether the omicron variant has been the driving force behind the country’s rapid spread, countries around the world have implemented travel bans and restrictions for travellers from South Africa and other African countries.
What are the risks associated with the Omicron variant?
While information is currently limited, Omicron’s VOA classification by the WHO was primarily based on its large number of mutations, some of which are concerning.
Preliminary evidence suggests that these observed mutations may cause the Omicron variant to pose an increased risk of reinfection compared to other VOCs.
As for transmissibility and severity, it’s too soon to tell whether Omicron poses a higher degree of risk compared to the delta variant. Despite the rising COVID-19 and hospitalization cases in South Africa, WHO has yet to attribute them solely to the Omicron variant.
Epidemiological studies and observations are currently underway, and we’ll likely learn more in the coming weeks whether or not the extent of these mutations does indeed correlate to heighten risks of transmissibility and/or severity.
Prof Francois Balloux, director of the Genetics Institute at University College London has said that “Omicron tends to be better able to reinfect people who have been previously infected and received some protection against Covid-19”.
Omicron variant symptoms in Pakistan
According to WHO, there is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with the Omicron variant are different from those from other variants. General ones agreed by most experts are:
- Infections in the upper respiratory tract
- Sore throat
As per the WHO, COVID-19 patients will typically exhibit one of these primary symptoms:
- dry cough
Less common symptoms:
- aches and pains
- sore throat
- loss of taste or smell
- a rash on the skin, or discolouration of fingers or toes
More serious symptoms:
- difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- loss of speech or mobility, or confusion
- chest pain
Are vaccines effective against the Omicron variant?
Even though it is not yet clear whether the effectiveness of current COVID vaccines is less effective against the Omicron variant, vaccines do remain critical to reducing severe disease and death, including against the dominant circulating variant, Delta.
While both vaccination and the virus infection can lead to immunity against the coronavirus, infection carries a risk of severe illness. Experts suggest that boosters of the current vaccines could help people better fend off Omicron, but it is too early to know if an Omicron-specific vaccine or booster could curb the infection rate.
As per the recent EMA press release, recent studies show that vaccination continues to produce a remarkable level of protection against critical disease and hospitalization linked to the Omicron variant. People who have been administered with a booster shot are better protected than those who have only received their primary course.
Data from South Africa suggests that those who have received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine should have up to 70% protection for hospitalisation. While, similar data from the UK shows that protection declines a few months after vaccination, protection from hospitalisation rises again to 90% after a booster shot.
As vaccine companies continue to advance the success of a variant-specific vaccine for Omicron, studies have shown that three doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine was able to neutralize the Omicron variant thereby expanding the antibody titers by 25-fold, while two doses show significantly reduced neutralization titers.
Omicron variant in Pakistan
Pakistan health authorities have expressed their concerns regarding the Omicron variant strain that is rapidly spreading throughout the country.
Pakistan’s National Command and Control Center (NCOC), has urged Pakistanis to get themselves vaccinated and follow the current SOP to mitigate the threat posed by the latest strain of the coronavirus through their Twitter as they report the percentage of infected citizens in each city a week ago.
Omicron variant continues spreading countrywide. Please ensure you are fully vaccinated, received booster dose (if eligible) and follow SOPs including mask wearing and social distancing. Take special care of elderly as admissions and mortality rate is higher in older people. pic.twitter.com/iQUzA6rOXU— NCOC (@OfficialNcoc) January 28, 2022
Upon receiving the initial information on the Omicron strain, the Pakistani authorities concluded that COVID vaccination will be effective against it. Vaccination remains a vital element and the most logical solution to curb the threat.
Tests, contact tracing, and booster shots
Pfizer booster shots will also be administered to the population most at risk from COVID-19. Priority is given to healthcare workers, immuno-compromised persons and those aged 50 and above. The booster jab will be given six months after the administration of the last dose, and the administration will be voluntary and free of charge.
The National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) has also decided that individuals above the age of 18 are eligible to get a booster dose of their own choice from 14 January 2022.
The selection of vaccine will also depend on the choice of the individual, or the availability of the vaccine. However, in case a person tests positive for COVID-19, the booster dose will be administered after 28 days.
The Ministry of Health in Pakistan will also be administering free booster shots for those who wish to travel internationally.
The authorities have stated that they will ramp up the number of daily tests being conducted particularly in high-risk areas which had previously been eased following a decline in the positivity rate.
Recently on February 1, they conducted a door-to-door vaccination campaign called “Reach Every Door” with 55,000 mobile teams and they aim to provide 35 million citizens above 12 years old who are eligible to get their booster shots at their homes.
Pakistan’s contact-tracing system will be revived and rejuvenated by way of increasing efficiency and integrating more resources.
Travel bans for several countries
Pakistan had earlier banned several countries due to a spike in global infections and the risk and spread of the mutating COVID-19 variants. Among the banned countries were Croatia, Hungary, Netherlands, Ukraine, Ireland, Slovenia, Vietnam, Poland, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, Botswana, Namibia and Hong Kong. Inbound travel from these countries was not permitted.
According to a statement from the NCOC, Pakistani authorities have now decided to abolish the Category B and Category C lists of prohibited countries from which travel is banned, except under certain conditions.
Effective 5 January 2022, the following guidelines will be applicable for all passengers:
- Travellers above 15 years must present a proof of COVID-19 vaccination and should be fully vaccinated.
- Travellers above 6 years should present a valid negative PCR test result conducted within the 48 hours prior to commencement of travel to Pakistan.
- Arrivals from Europe will be subject to Rapid Antigen Testing upon arrival.
- 50 % inbound flight passenger arrivals from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE will be subject to Rapid Antigen Testing upon arrival.
- Selective Rapid Antigen Testing for all inbound passengers coming from countries other than Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and Europe.
Positive testing travellers between 6 and 12 years will be home quarantined under the supervision of concerned Civil administration.
Travellers above 12 years will need to quarantine at a designated facility for 10 days and a PCR test will be conducted on day 8 of such quarantine. In case they test negative for the PCR test, they will be allowed to leave. However, if they test positive again, they will have to undergo additional quarantine or be moved to a hospital, depending on advice from health authorities.
Please note that all countries that are not included in Category B or C have been included in Category A. Passengers from these countries will also be required to be fully vaccinated and possess a negative PCR test report issued not more than 48 hours prior to boarding.
Citizens of Pakistan who are abroad and not fully vaccinated due to the following reasons will be exempt from presenting a COVID-19 vaccination certificate to the concerned authorities:
- Expired visa, illegal immigrants/deportees
- Those with medical conditions/issues
- Pregnant female travellers
- Travellers between the age group of 15 to 18 years (exemption valid until 15 February 2022).
Restrictions in public places
NCOC decided to extend the COVID-19 restrictions for public places until February 15th. Here are the details for each public places:
Indoor gatherings of all types, including weddings.
Outdoor gatherings, including weddings, will be allowed with a cap of 300 fully-vaccinated guests.
There will be a complete ban on indoor dining. However, outdoor dining for fully-vaccinated citizens and takeaway service will be allowed.
Indoor gyms at 50% capacity for fully-vaccinated individuals will be allowed.
Cinemas will be allowed to open at 50% capacity for full-vaccinated individuals only.
Shrines are allowed to open at 50% capacity for fully-vaccinated individuals only.
Allowed to open at 50% capacity for fully-vaccinated people only.
There would be a complete ban on contact sports like karate, boxing, martial arts, water polo, kabaddi and wrestling.